How to get better value at restaurants
Restaurants have been stung hard by the recession, as people who used to dine out frequently have cut way back on this optional expense. But every once in awhile you want to sit down to a gourmet meal with wine and really enjoy it. If you have a little slack in your budget, there are ways you can maximize your experience at a nice restaurant. These techniques also work at more casual chain restaurants, which, after all, are a rare treat for some of us.
1. Go easy on Mondays. Mondays can be a double edged sword. After the weekend crowds, Mondays tend to be slow, and some restaurants offer specials to entice diners early in the week. However, you may want to do as Without Reservations host Anthony Bourdain does and avoid ordering fish on Monday unless you are absolutely certain the fish have been bought fresh that day. Monday's fish can be several days old.
2. Don't order something you can make for yourself without much trouble. As long as you're splurging, you might as well try a dish that looks good that you've never tried before. Also keep in mind that profit margins are huge for many restaurants for pasta and other simple dishes. Why not order a nice steak instead?
3. Wine psychology. Some people have said that when ordering wine, the second to cheapest selection is generally the worst wine value. The reason is that people on a budget don't want to appear cheap by ordering the cheapest wine, so they step up one level. Restaurants know this, and put their most low-budget wine in this slot in the list to enhance profits.
4. Don't chase the oil. Truffle oil may not be actual truffle oil. The real stuff costs $90 an ounce, so unless you're in a super-expensive restaurant, you can be fairly certain that you're getting a cheaper kind of oil with "truffle aromatics."
5. Do lunch. Go out to lunch rather than dinner. Pretty obvious, but at most places, the lunchtime menu is less expensive than the dinner menu.
6. Drink tap water. Bottled water is most restaurants' biggest profit maker. Soft drinks and alcohol are also big rain makers for restaurants. If you live where the quality of the tap water is high, you'll easily save a few dollars (edit: or 'quid' for brits, but I'm just a cheap Americano) by skipping the soda or wine.
7. Join discount programs. Lastminute.com has last minute deals on some of the best UK restaurants. Sometimes you can score winners like a three course offering at the Ritz for £43. 5pm.co.uk has a rewards point scheme, and they only book with restaurants that are offering specials. They also concentrate on restaurants outside London, which is quite helpful for non-Londoners. Toptable.co.uk also has a points program and books restaurants throughout the UK and internationally. You get 200 points for joining, and 200 more each time you book through toptable.co.uk. When you have 1,400 points, you get a free meal.
Any other rules of thumb you live by when dining out? Let us know.